alternative songs
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The 100 Best Alternative Singles of the 1980s: 60 – 41

We present the best punk, post-punk, new wave, college rock, goth, industrial, new romantic, ska, power pop, hardcore, and indie rock singles of the 1980s.

55. Midnight Oil – “Beds Are Burning” (1987)

Australian rockers Midnight Oil had been churning out great tunes for almost a decade before they made a meteoric impact in America with the surprise crossover hit “Beds Are Burning”, the lead single from their excellent 1987 album Diesel and Dust. Despite being about as far away from a typical 1987 pop song as you can get, “Beds are Burning” clawed its way to #17 on the Hot 100. Peter Garrett, the band’s imposing bald frontman, croaks out the lyrics in a voice that sounds like it’s been parched out in the desert for months without water.

The song is about the Pintupi, and aboriginal people from Australia’s western end who had been forcibly removed from their native lands. Garrett’s passion for the issue about which he sings is obvious. A three-chord exclamation of guitar and brass opens the song, introduces the anthemic choruses, and provides the finallé. Throughout “Beds are Burning” a ratcheting guitar and elastic bass play in tandem, giving it motoric power. It’s superbly produced with immaculate attention to detail — give it a good listen on headphones sometime. Viscerally exciting, emotional, instilled with real inspiration, “Beds Are Burning” is arguably the apex of Midnight Oil’s outstanding career.


54. Hüsker Dü – “Don’t Want to Know If You Are Lonely” (1986)

The trio of guitarist Bob Mould, bassist Greg Norton and drummer Grant Hart recorded four albums between 1983 and 1985, honing their sound on each. Hüsker Dü‘s 1986 release Candy Apple Grey marked a turning point for the band, who were growing from blazing hardcore to a more accessible college-radio-friendly brand of songwriting with an emphasis on stronger melodies. Of course, that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of aggression and in-your-face rock ‘n’ roll. The Grant Hart composition “Don’t Want to Know If You Are Lonely” burns at a furious pace with ragged guitar riffs and crashing drums. Hart sings about trying to disconnect from a woman who left him but can’t seem to let him move on without her. Hart’s narrator, though, sounds like a guy who protests too much when he insists, “don’t want to know if you are lonely / don’t want to know if you are less than lonely”.

Mould, Norton, and Grant would stick together long enough to record one final album, the stellar 1987 double-LP Warehouse: Song and Stories, but that would be their swan song. “Don’t Want to Know If You Are Lonely” is the one track that distills the essence of Hüsker Dü’s the best. Green Day covered it in 2011 for a Record Store Day promotion that put the original on one side of a 45 and the cover on the flip.


53. Sinéad O’Connor – “Mandinka” (1987)

Sinéad O’Connor immediately established herself as a significant musical force with her remarkable debut album The Lion and the Cobra. O’Connor is gifted with a remarkably expressive voice that can veer from crystalline beauty to completely unhinged wailing banshee, sometimes within the span of the same song. “Mandinka”, the album’s first single, is known for its hard-charging guitar riff and O’Connor’s blazing vocal delivery. She cut a striking figure as she performed the song on the 1989 Grammy Awards, with her defiantly bald and painted head, black sports bra with midriff showing, ripped jeans, and combat boots. O’Connor was a stark contrast to all pop culture demigods of the moment bedecked in glamorous suits and gowns in the audience — she was rock ‘n’ roll, and they were artifice.

It’s symbolic of how O’Connor has operated her entire career. She’s always marched to the beat of her own drummer, defying societal and music industry norms and expectations and remaining fiercely independent. It all started with “Mandinka”, a passionate rocker inspired by a West African tribe named in the novel Roots by Alex Haley.


52. Meat Puppets – “Lake of Fire” (1984)

The Phoenix-based brothers Curt and Cris Kirkwood released their self-titled debut in 1982, but it was Meat Puppets II, released two years later, that stands as a bedraggled classic. The high point is the frazzled “Lake of Fire”, with its slow swamp-rock beat, Curt Kirkwood’s deranged vocal, and swarms of guitar buzzing overhead like nasty bugs in the marsh that won’t stop biting. The feverish lyrics are like an old folk fable that was born of some secretive cult haunting the countryside. The song clocks in at under two minutes, but its brevity seems appropriate. It would collapse under its own weight if it dragged on any longer.

Of course, Nirvana performed “Lake of Fire” and two other Meat Puppets songs on their historic Unplugged in New York album, even bringing the Kirkwood brothers on stage to guest. Like he did all the songs on Unplugged, Cobain scrapes “Lake of Fire” to its rawest, bare essentials.


51. Devo – “Whip It” (1980)

“Kerrrack that whip!” Devo‘s singularly unique band of art-rock wasn’t ever really mainstream, but somehow their single “Whip It” got enough radio and MTV support to reach #14 in 1980. There’s been nothing quite like “Whip It” in the Top 40, before or since. Although in retrospect it seems like the most obviously commercial track from its parent album Freedom of Choice, it wasn’t the first single — that honor went to “Girl U Want”. With its krautrock-inspired motorik beat, spidery electronic bass line, and synthetic whip cracks, “Whip It” is a bold and provocative recording that still sounds fantastic blasted out of a good set of speakers. During the chorus, a frantic alarm-bell keyboard riff flashes in the background, amping up the frenetic energy. One of the great things about the ’80s is that sometimes the stars aligned and oddities like this could break through to mass consciousness.

Of course, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the truly bizarre video. With the group wearing red flowerpots on their heads and garbed in tight black turtlenecks while on the set of what looks like the world’s cheesiest western sitcom (or amateur porno), a splendidly geeky Mark Mothersbaugh brandishes his whip like an alien sex fiend.

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